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17.5 From Personal to Public Writing: A Definition from Experience

Definitions are public understandings that grow out of individual (sometimes personal) cases. You can use your own experience as the basis for defining an abstract term.

  1. Start by thinking of a time when you felt a strong emotion, such as fear, anger, hope, or joy. Write a paragraph telling the story of that experience. Describe what happened and let the reader see your reactions. Don't talk about the emotion; show it in action.

  2. Then think about how the experience you've described fits in with other ideas you have about this emotion. Write a new paragraph starting with a sentence in this form: "(Name of emotion) is ________________ ." For example, "Relief is a feeling that comes when a great weight has been lifted from your shoulders." Go on to discuss your ideas about the emotion. What is it? How is it different from similar emotions? How does it make people behave? Who is likely to feel it and when? Where does it come from?

  3. Next read the paragraphs aloud in the reverse order: read the idea one (b) first and the story one (a) second. Then ask the crucial question, "So what?" Draw a conclusion, answering some of these questions: Does this emotion have long-term effects? How does it pass? What does it leave behind?

  4. Now arrange the paragraphs in this order:
    Paragraph #1 [see (b) above] What is this emotion? Start with the sentence: (Name of emotion) is ________________ . Revise your paragraph telling ideas about the emotion. Do not refer to yourself; don't use "I." Tell about the emotion, not yourself.
    Paragraph #2 [see (a) above] What story illustrates this emotion? Revise your paragraph telling your story, omitting details that bring in other emotions and adding details that show how the emotion worked in that one situation. Refer to yourself, using "I."
    Paragraph #3 So what? Revise your conclusion. Return to ideas, telling about the emotion, using "I" only if you want to bring in some final examples of how it works.

  5. Practice putting the paragraphs in different orders, making the necessary changes so that in each arrangement the paragraphs come together as an essay with a clear main idea.
    Choose the one you like best and get a reader to respond to it before you write your final draft.

  6. Practice writing three-paragraph essays (definition, specific example story, conclusion) about other abstract terms: peace, justice, faith, pain, freedom, education, power, etc.

Note: In Chapter 16 under Giving and Taking Peer Responses, see "Relief" by Paula Henriques for a sample of an essay in this pattern.

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